In October 2013, little more than eight months into her job as director of the veterans’ healthcare center in Phoenix, Sharon Helman went looking for a job with the health care giant Kaiser Permanent.
Media reports that would place Helman at the center of a scandal involving veterans being placed on secret wait lists were still six months away, but some lawmakers already were making inquiries.
In September 2013, a month before Helman interviewed for a job as chief operations officer for the Santa Clara Medical Center in California, Sen. John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, told the Veterans Affairs Department he wanted an inspector general investigation into veteran suicides and the “confusing and confidential nature” of the electronic waitlist at the Phoenix facility.
Helman’s job interview and the travel reimbursement she received for it are detailed in the Merit Systems Protection Board report that upheld her firing by the VA.
McCain’s call for an investigation was in response to a letter from Dr. Katherine Mitchell, who had been raising concerns about the hospital with Helman almost from the day she began as director. Within weeks of the senator’s request, Helman placed Mitchell on administrative leave over allegations Mitchell had “inappropriate access” to veterans charts.
Mitchell subsequently claimed whistleblower retaliation against Helman and others at the VA facility.
An accountability review board later sustained Mitchell’s allegations that several Phoenix VA officials took reprisals against her as a whistleblower. The board “did not include any express conclusions about the [Helman’s] retaliating against Dr. Mitchell, but did mention [Helman’s] September 2013 decision to place Dr. Mitchell on administrative leave, which was related to her possible release of patient’s information to Senator McCain,” according to the Merit Systems Protection Board.
The board sustained the VA’s termination of Helman, not for any actions related to the wait-times scandal but because she did not report gifts and other reimbursements as required by law.
Helman accepted thousands of dollars worth of gifts, including air travel and concert tickets, from a one-time VA boss, Dennis Max Lewis, who had been working as a consultant to a healthcare company looking to do business with the VA.
Among the private reimbursements Helman failed to report were those related to her job-hunting trip to California, the board concluded.
“You failed to report receiving in-kind payment or reimbursement for travel expenses totaling over $770.00, including a hotel room for one night, airfare, meals, a rental car and airport parking, resulting from a job interview with Kaiser Permanente in October 2013,” the merit board said in its ruling last month.
The $770 that Helman didn’t report included only $116 in actual direct reimbursement from Kaiser – and that was for meals, rental car and airport parking. The balance, including $141 for a hotel and $260 for air travel, was reimbursed directly to the hotel and airline, the board said.
--Bryant Jordan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.